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And it is a question that sits squarely in this morning’s Torah reading. Our parashah, Tol’dot, often translated as “generations,” is about the act of identity transmission from parent to child – in this case, from Isaac and Rebecca to their twin boys Esau and Jacob. After years of infertility, Rebecca is blessed with twins, along with the burden of God’s prediction that the older will serve the younger. One ruddy, one fair; one tough, one mild. The boys grew up – Esau favored by his father, Jacob by his mother. An early scene has Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentils. Esau marries out of the tribe, a source of bitterness to both parents. On his deathbed, a now-blind Isaac sends Esau out to hunt and prepare game in preparation for a blessing. Rebecca, overhearing the exchange, sets in motion a plan whereby Jacob rather than Esau receives the sought-after blessing. Returning from the hunt, Esau realizes he has been cheated and vows to kill his brother, who – again with his mother’s help –flees for his life. The tale is not a pretty one; it is really a case study in how not to parent – a valuable literary prism, nevertheless, through which to examine our own family structures.
Let’s begin with the obvious. This is a story that brings to the fore the question of nature vs. nurture. Unlike Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, or Joseph and his brothers, by making Jacob and Esau twins, the Torah provides us with an implicit thought experiment, played out daily in every family, about the degree to which our children’s character is inborn or a reflection of the household in which they are raised. The text could not be more clear: Not only has the antenatal oracle signaled their spiritual hardwiring, and not only do these boys emerge from the womb physically different, but the struggle between them appears to be built in from the get-go. You may agree, you may disagree, but on this subject the Torah is unambiguous: There are aspects of our children’s identities that are nature not nurture, a thought as constricting as it is liberating. It is a thought that raises a host of next-level questions regarding how we as parents respond to our children’s nature, questions to which we shall return soon.
Isaac and Rebecca’s response, we know, leaves much to be desired. Isaac and Rebecca loved each other dearly: The word “ahavah, love, is used in reference to them more than any other biblical couple. Their problem was not the absence of love but the judicious allocation of it. Again the text is clear: Isaac loved Esau; Rebecca loved Jacob. If you have a bit of Hebrew, note the possessive suffixes throughout the story: Esau is always “his son,” and Jacob, “her son,” the very grammar speaking volumes. I remember how when our kids were young, they would climb onto Debbie’s lap and ask her which one was her favorite – to which Debbie would smile and wisely answer, “Whichever one I am with!” This warm dynamic was not the case in our Torah reading, and what the biblical narrator notes, Jacob and Esau undoubtedly felt. Their DNA became destiny, their parents’ biased nurturing shackling their respective natures. The boys were shoehorned into a binary that precluded their right to self-assertion, that reinforced the fault line between them and that ruled out an appreciation of difference, growth, and shared blessing. It is a state of affairs described by Freud as the “narcissism of minor differences,” the observation that it is often those individuals with whom we have the most in common, like siblings, with whom we find it hardest to get along. In my imagination, the sale of the birthright for a bowl of lentils was but one of many tit-for-tat childhood incidents between two siblings in constant competition for their parents’ love, for their sense of self-worth, and their right to self-definition.
If I can peel away at the onion a bit more, I think part of the problem with Isaac and Rebecca is that their parenting skills are somehow, to the detriment of Jacob and Esau, reflections of their own childhoods. As many have noted, the inward-looking Isaac found something compelling in his outdoorsy son Esau, no different than Rebecca may have seen in the tent-dwelling Jacob the daughter she never had. But it goes deeper than that. Remember, we met Rebecca last week as she boldly watered the camels and forcefully asserted her determination to leave her father’s home. Given the household from which she came, we understand and even admire Rebecca’s character: Better to apologize later than ask for permission first. But Rebecca fails to separate the family dynamics of her household of origin from those of the household which is hers to build. As for Isaac, having been bound on the altar and estranged from his father, his luftmensch existence is no surprise. A telling interlude in our Torah reading has him re-digging the wells that his father Abraham had dug. Isaac is a man so involved in confronting his broken relationship with his father that he fails to tend to the unfolding drama of his own children. His blindness is not just a physical condition; it is a metaphor for his parenting if not his entire being. All of this, we know, results in a series of decisions and deceptions with tragic consequences.
To put it plainly, it wasn’t just that Isaac and Rebecca each favored one child over the other. It is that they, to everyone’s detriment, remained tethered to the models set by their respective pasts. They never created a shared vision. They never communicated with each other. No matter how much they may have loved each other, when it came to parenting, they were not on the same page, never mind showing a united front. It is a negative example whose reverberations we can all feel. We are all extensions of the homes that gave us life, and oftentimes that is a good thing. But it is a failure of both imagination and personal agency for one generation to parent the next generation entirely under the shadow of the past generation. We all only get one swing at the plate. You can only blame your parents for so long, and at some point, it is incumbent upon us all to parent in the manner of our own choosing, and if you are parenting with someone else, that must be a shared vision.
The tragic consequences of Isaac and Rebecca’s parenting are rendered most vivid in the dénouement of our Torah reading, after Isaac, as a result of Rebecca’s manipulations, has been duped into giving Jacob the blessing meant for Esau. The scene gives us, I believe, the most heartbreaking verse of the book of Genesis, if not the entire Torah. Esau enters, realizes the blessing has been given away, and in a heaving sob, cries Ha-vrakhah ehat hi l’kha avi? Barakheni gam ani avi! Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father! (27:38). Heartbreaking not just because Esau has lost the blessing, but because Esau lived in a world where parental blessings were believed to be a zero-sum game. A world where blessings were finite, static, and could not be shared.
There are some commentators who believe that Isaac and Rebecca’s failure was that they ignored the different natures of their children and gave them the same education, thereby dooming them. There are others who believe the opposite, that the failure of Isaac and Rebecca was that in raising the boys so differently, according to their nature at birth, they bear responsibility for the struggle faced by each son and between them. I think it is a little of both. As the book of Proverbs teaches: Hanokh la-na·ar al pi darko. Teach a child according to their way. (22:6) I think that parenting is the never-ending process of seeking to affirm the ever-evolving nature of a child’s identity all the while taking agency for your role and responsibility in shaping that identity.
I have no idea why one child is better at math, why one child makes friends more easily, why one child gravitates to athletics, and why one takes to tradition. What I do know is that on any given day, a new aspect of my child emerges that I have never seen before. On any given day, a parental intervention may be needed to nudge them toward realizing their full self-worth. On any given day, Debbie and I try our best to make sure that we are on the same page – even when, and sometimes especially when, the particular moment requires one or the other of us to take the lead. I pray that over time, my children will forgive whatever overreach and underreach I am guilty of as a parent, knowing that I am proud of them and that I love them equally, infinitely, and differently. I want them to know that thoughtful as I may be about parenting, I make no claim to perfection, and should they become parents, it is their obligation to create a model that works for the world they seek to create. Most of all, I hope and pray that they know that there is no limit to the quantity and quality of blessings that they can expect from their parents. My greatest wish, after all, is that some day in the distant future they will sit down together, with lives of their own, taking full pride in each other’s achievements, always having each other’s backs, and with a glass of single malt scotch in hand, they will turn to each other and say: “He’s all right, my dad!”
And while it may take some time, it is heartening to know that this is where our biblical story will eventually lead. To that scene in the parashah two weeks from today, when Jacob and Esau see each other for the first time in decades. Jacob greets his brother bearing gifts, and Esau responds, yesh li rav, ahi, I have enough, my brother. Esau is happy with his portion and Jacob, for his part, replies with words as beautiful as they come: ra·iti panekha kirot p’nei Elohim, to see your face is like seeing the face of God. (Genesis 36:9–10) Blessings abound. The children are no longer beholden to the missteps of their parents; the siblings have taken agency for their futures and families; now grown adults, they are ready to meet the challenges that await them.
As children of our parents and as parents to our children, so too may this be our blessing.